Meal assistance needed now, Officials’ cooperation crucial

The Brownsville public school district resumed providing federally subsidized free meals to local families, after a weeklong curtailment. The return to providing the vital meals, which the district says are between 7,000 and 8,000 per day, is welcome.

The critical need for help in feeding local families is evident not only in the number of school packets handed out, but also in the 200% increase for assistance from the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley. The demand is so great that members of the Texas Army National Guard have been called on to help distribute it. As staff writer Francisco E. Jimenez documented this week, more than 2,000 people showed up Tuesday at the food bank’s drivethru distribution site in Pharr, and received more than 11½ tons of food. The Brownsville issue also highlights the need for officials to coordinate their emergency response policies, and recognize that one agency’s decisions affect others.

After schools closed following Spring Break in response to public stay-at-home orders, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continued its Child Nutrition Meal Program. Schools nationwide, including those in Brownsville, allowed families to pick up prepared meals at selected schools. Because the food is intended for students, they were required to be in the vehicles at the pick-up sites.

That changed when six-foot social distancing rules were imposed. Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio announced that his deputies would enforce the rule aggressively, and would stop and give citations to any vehicle that contained more than one person. That announcement clashed with the USDA requirement that children be present when the meals were distributed, and the Brownsville district felt compelled to shut down the meal program on April 8.

Most other districts continued providing the meals.

Sheriff Lucio likely believed that strict enforcement might help reduce personto- person contact and lower the risk of viral contagion. It’s reasonable to assume, however, that people inside those vehicles are family members who spend most of the day together anyway.

Officials must consider how their decisions affect their communities, including other agencies. Perhaps cross-agency notification before implementation might have enabled BISD officials to alert the county about the conflict.

Those meals are important. Federal and local health and education officials frequently state that free school meals are the only healthy food many children eat on a given day. The demand at the food bank indicates that many families are hardpressed to feed their children.

Healthy meals are even more important during health scares such as the current pandemic. Wellnourished bodies are better able to fight off infection, and reduce the impact of any illness that does occur.

Fortunately, this pandemic also has shown the benevolence of many Valley residents. Their generosity has enabled the food bank to help address the food crisis that has resulted from the pandemic and official measures to stop it. Better coordination among our elected officials will help maximize the benefit of that public altruism, and help reduce the strain of any future emergencies.